BWW Review: ROCK OF AGES Tries to Rock Hollywood at the Bourbon Room
Jukebox musicals have been around in both stage and film form for decades, but they really caught fire around the turn of the century with Peter Allen's Tony-winning THE BOY FROM OZ, Abba's Tony-nominated MAMMA MIA! and Baz Luhrmann's Oscar-winning MOULIN ROUGE! It was only a matter of time before the '80s got its due, and what is more classically '80s than hair metal?
Enter Rock of Ages.
Debuting at the Vanguard nightclub in Hollywood in 2006 before moving to Vegas and eventually off-Broadway and finally to Broadway itself, the show was a big success, running for more than 2,000 performances, garnering five Tony nominations and spawning a (poorly received) 2012 feature directed by Adam Shankman and starring Diego Boneta, Julianne Hough, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Featuring hits from artists like REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Def Leppard, Poison, Journey and Pat Benatar, the show focuses on a fictional club called the Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip in 1987. One of the establishment's busboys, Drew (Ian Ward), has aspirations of becoming a glam rock star himself. His world is rocked when Sherrie Christian (Marisa Matthews on the night I was there, but usually played by Callandra Olivia), a Kansas transplant, arrives on the scene. Sparks fly but the road to true love is a rocky one, especially when vainglorious rock god Stacee Jaxx (Sean Yves Lessard) hits the club.
While the songs are fun flashbacks, Rock of Ages is far too long (at two and a half hours, and starting 15 minutes late) and convoluted to really land the way it should. There's a whole subplot about evil German developers attempting to commercialize the Strip that saps the fun out of the rest. It would have been better served focusing solely on Drew, Sherrie and their struggles to find success, confidence and love. Their dreams embody what the world sees in the Sunset Strip.
There are other problems as well. The humor is puerile (Let's laugh at the chubby guy because he's chubby!); the "Gay or European" thing isn't just played out, it's played for cheap laughs by making one of the developers (Frankie Grande) a flaming flamer who makes Rip Taylor look butch in comparison (an effeminate straight man is fine-a mincing queen is just a dated and offensive stereotype); and Sherrie is only half a step from being simply "The Girl." That said, aside from Sherrie, a woman protesting the development of the Strip and a madam/pimp in a small role, the rest of the female cast is relegated to skimpy, sexualized clothing, which, while likely appropriate for the time, doesn't work well when they have no actual character.
Writer Chris D'Arienzo seems to think making random references to the '80s gives material depth when it really just makes references to the '80s. The best jukebox musicals have a strong story and then hang songs on it that embellish it and give it resonance. It seems the creators of Rock of Ages chose songs and then built a weak story around them. (For example, Sherrie Christian is so named specifically so Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" and Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie" can be included.) Both the For the Record and the Unauthorized Musical Parody Of series know how to punctuate strong stories with the right pop songs, whether it's the over-the-top camp of UMPO's lampoons or the elegant stateliness of FtR's LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE.
There are some spirited moments (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts' "I Hate Myself for Loving You" combined with Asia's "Heat of the Moment" is an inspiring way to show two sides of a toxic relationship), and songs like Starship's "We Built This City," Styx's "Too Much Time On My Hands," and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" are sing-along catnip to those of a certain age. Ward has a soulful voice and a guileless face, which makes him a dreamy leading man, and setting down a 10-year residency in a club called the Bourbon Room in Hollywood (with a custom-built stage and venue just for this show) is uber meta.
Being dinner theater, there's action going on everywhere so you'll have to crane your head to see everything, and even then there's no guarantee you'll catch it all. Choreographer Kelly Devine positions the dancers all over the place, so you'll have to watch your drinks and feet, because at points they'll be only inches away. But that just adds to the immediacy of the show, which does have a certain loony energy that's easy to be swept up in. So if you wanna rock and have fond memories of the '80s (or ideas of what they were), check your brain, tease your hair and slip into a pair of leather pants. Rock of Ages might rock your world.
ROCK OF AGES has an open run with performances Wednesday through Sunday at 8 p.m. with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees. Tickets range from $89-$129 and can be purchased at RockofAgesHollywood.com. The Bourbon Room is located at 6356 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd Floor, Hollywood, CA 90028.